CENTRAL COMMAND AREA OF OPERATIONS -- For the first time since the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) left Camp Lejeune, N.C. in late February, AV8B Harrier IIs of the MEU's aviation combat element participated in combat missions in direct support of the global war against terrorism.
"It was good to finally be utilized in support of Operation Enduring Freedom," said Capt. Michael J. "Stump" Perez, of Jacksonville, Flordia, a Harrier pilot referring to his incursion into the unfriendly skies over Afghanistan. "It was a little surreal."
Perez and his fellow pilots flew combat missions on a number of successive days, their sorties taking them over the barren west Afghanistan landscape. Security restrictions prevent revealing the exact nature of the missions, but the flights were part of a greater coalition effort in the region.
According the Perez, the missions were all successful and they encountered no enemy resistence, nor suffered any damage or mechanical difficulties.
The Harriers, whose home station is at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., are assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter 261 (Reinforced) and flew from the deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp that was on station off the coast of Pakistan. From mission launch to recovery, the flights took approximately six hours.
"Flying in support of Operation Enduring Freedom wasn't too different from any of the other missions we've performed off the ship," said Maj. David A. "Tip" Vosteen, a Harrier pilot from Williamsburg, Virginia. "We train to be ready, making sure the operating procedures and tactics we use in peacetime will work in a hostile environment."
Vosteen, a combat veteran of Operation Desert Storm, said he and the other Harrier drivers worked hard to prepare for their missions, but their destination had no affect on their mindset as they entered a combat zone.
"We had prepared for the missions, briefed them thoroughly, and understood what each of us was supposed to do," said Vosteen, who doubles as HMM-261 (Rein)'s operations officer. "Crossing a line on a map doesn't change the way you do business."
Perez echoed Vosteen's sentiment, but with a slight twist. "Having flown over Kosovo before, it was a familiar feeling. The hair stands up a little bit on the back of your neck when you realize that there are people underneath you that would love nothing better than to shoot you down. I would not call it fear, but rather just a heightened sense of awareness."
Renowned for their ability to conduct vertical or short take-offs and landings, the single-seat Harriers executed their missions armed with 500-pound GBU-12 'Paveway' laser-guided bombs and a revolutionary imagery system known as Litening II Pod. This deployment of the 22d MEU (SOC), and these missions in particular, mark the first operational employment of the Litening II Pod, a system that has both targeting and reconnaissance applications.
The Litening II Pod was first introduced into the Marine Corps inventory in August 2000 and underwent substantial testing and analysis prior to its deployment with the 22d MEU (SOC). The system consists a forward-looking infra-red (FLIR) sensor to assist in its targeting mission and a charged coupled device (CCD-TV) camera used for video reconnaissance.
Staff Sgt. Eric C. Wilson, of North Providence, Rhode Island is an ordnance technician and safety observer for the squadron's ordnance division and supervised the loading of munitions, counter measures (flares and 'chaff'), and the Litening II Pod on the Afghanistan-bound Harriers.
"We conducted business like we do every time we prepare and load ordnance, but this time there was an added sense of purpose," said Wilson, commenting on loading the ordnance onto an aircraft going into harm's way. "We all had a sense of excitement that we were quite possibly making a difference in the war on terrorism."
These missions in Afghanistan were the latest in a string of exercises and operations conducted by the 22d MEU (SOC) in the ongoing global war against terrorism, most of which are still and will remain undisclosed.
For more information on the 22d MEU (SOC), visit the unit's website at www.22meu.usmc.mil.